(With all modifications, speak with a doctor or physical therapist before trying these out.)
Our Knees are often loud talkers when things are going array in our practice. Signals that something might need to change in our practice are: During practice our knees are fine, but then later in the day or the next day our knees feel creaky or sore; In a standing posture or in a seated hip stretch, our knees feel achy or twingy; While on hands and knees or in kneeling lunge, our knees feel pressure or uncomfortable. There are some simple tricks to explore finding our happy bee’s knees again.
We’ll look at three aspects of our knees (albeit there are many more worth diving into). First, Warrior 2 and crescent lunge are two postures where consistent misalignment of the knee can heavily impact our experience during and after our yoga practice. Second, adequate padding for our knees in any posture where our knees come in contact with the floor or mat is vital for comfort (kneeling lunge, wide legged frog, camel, hands and knees like cat/cow). Third, flexibility is important for ease in our knees, but when practicing hip flexibility postures be intimately aware of any discomforts at the knees.
In Warrior 2 (Virabhadrasana II) and crescent lunge it is imperative to have good knee alignment. Take a look at your Warrior 2 in a mirror pointing your front foot, gaze, and front arm toward the mirror.
- Look: If you were to draw a line from your hip to your middle knee, and your knee down to the center of the foot would there be a continuous, unwavering line? Look for hip-knee-foot alignment. Many of us will allow our knee to fall inward toward the big toe mound. Over time this can stress the inner part of the knee and it doesn’t get to the heart of the posture which is allowing external rotation which involves….yes, you know it…the gluteal and hip muscles.
- Engage: While engaging the gluteal and hip muscles (for abduction and external rotation) the alignment of the front knee can then align better with the hip. One way of seeing this better is to gaze down at your big toe and see if your knee is covering the big toe. If it is, then consider engaging those glutes/hip muscles to align the knee with the 2nd or 3rd toe. (Note that for some people this will not work anatomically or for other injuries; arranging the front foot slightly wider may be necessary instead.) Keep supporting the rest of the posture including the back leg.
- Flexibility and Feel: We also need flexibility of the inner thigh for Warrior 2 and suitable feedback from the rest of the body. Is the front foot aligned forward or is it dropping too far out? Some changes can be good for one part of the body but then add discomfort elsewhere. For example, some practioners have an impingement at the hip joint and this may affect how much external rotation is possible. This hip-knee-foot alignment is more predominant in Warrior 2 but it is still necessary in crescent lunge, chair, twisted lunge, and even balance postures like eagle or half moon balance.
Supporting the bones as they come in contact with the floor is a wonderful way of practicing ahimsa for our knees. There is no special yogi power we get by toughing it out when our knees are sore from being on the floor. Yoga mats are not enough cushioning for everyone. So give you knees some love and give them some special consideration: Fold up the mat 4 inches across the width of you mat for a quick padding fix; or place a blanket under your knees; or use foam supports (gardening knee padding or SukhaMat). If in frog pose (Mandukasana), pad up the inner knees too.
Finally, flexibility is key to any yoga practice. In Warrior 2 as demonstrated above, flexibility of the inner thigh line will help to externally rotate the thigh and better align the knee. Tight quadriceps or hamstrings can affect the knee and pain associated with this joint so spend time lengthening these muscles. When it comes to hip flexibility though, we sometimes forget to pay attention to the knees. Our knees get lost in the shuffle of feeling what is happening at the hip level of a hip stretch. However, if there are mild twinges at the inner (or outer) knee while doing a seated hip stretch such as preparation for rajakapotasana, or if the knees feel achy later after doing hip stretches, it is noteworthy. Consider spending time on your back for hip stretches until you are clear of the correct alignment in these seated upright stretches for the hips. In sleeping pigeon (aka figure four or eye of the needle stretch), I have found flexing the ankle helps to lock in the shin bone better so my knee stays more stable. In addition to adequate stretching, strengthening the muscles that connect with the knee are ways we can further support this important structure.
Enjoy finding the sweetness of your practice by bringing stability to your knee in whatever way!